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The Late Winfred Rembert Documented His Life With Art — And Now A Book

<em>Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist's Memoir of the Jim Crow South,</em> by Winfred Rembert and Erin Kelly
Bloomsbury Publishing
Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist's Memoir of the Jim Crow South, by Winfred Rembert and Erin Kelly

The late Winfred Rembert documented his life with art. He carved figures in leather and painted scenes from rural Georgia.

His autobiography, written with author Erin Kelly, Chasing Me To My Grave: An Artist's Memoir Of The Jim Crow South, features images of fishing in the culvert or dancing in the juke joint — but also of picking cotton, escaping a lynching and working on the chain gang.

A Tufts University professor, Kelly worked with Rembert to turn his life into a book. Winfred's wife, Patsy Rembert, also influenced him.

"So he didn't want to tell his story for a long time," Patsy Rembert tells NPR. "He would talk to me, and he said, 'no one's going to believe me.' But we got some of this stuff documented. And I feel like him telling his story — he's telling a story about a lot of — more Black people who endured these things, who didn't have a voice, who couldn't find a safe refuge to talk about it. Even today, some people won't mention what happened to them or what they saw. A lot of things went on in the South that never reached the papers. No one wants to talk about it, but they happen. These things happen."

Interview Highlights

On his simple, straightforward way of recalling the events of his life

Erin Kelly: I felt it was important, and Winfred agreed, that the story speak for itself, that there would be no moralizing, that it wouldn't be presented in any kind of sentimental way, and that Winfred's voice would be the centerpiece of the book and that it would sound like Winfred.

On his narrow escape after being attacked by a white mob, that Rembert recounted in a 2017 StoryCorps

Patsy Rembert: It stayed with him his whole life. It never left. He said it was like a movie replaying over and over in his head. And when he'd go to sleep, it would all come back vividly to him in his dreams. And it did follow him to his grave. ...

Well, I don't know whether [the art] actually helped him that much, but it gave him an outlet to tell the world about what had happened.

On his painting called "All Me"

Erin Kelly: Sure. It's a painting of prisoners in black and white stripes. Their faces are grimacing. They're twisting and turning throughout the canvas. And as he describes the painting, all of these faces, all of the people, represent himself because he said that when he was on the chain gang, the conditions were so brutal and so difficult, he had to be more than one person to survive.

On his painting that depict chain gangs

Erin Kelly: I mean, this was an extremely brutal situation where the prisoners were basically tortured, sometimes through the work itself and sometimes through forms of punishment that were inflicted on people in order to keep them subordinated, keep them broken — to break them, really. So it was a struggle for one's sanity. It was a struggle to maintain some sense of identity and personhood under these horribly degrading and brutal conditions.

On learning how to tool leather in prison

Patsy Rembert: He would make pocketbooks and stuff like that. And he'd make such beautiful pictures on the pocketbooks until I said, you know — and he could draw. He would draw people at our PTA meetings and stuff. And I said, honey, why don't you put your life story on that leather? Nobody is doing that kind of work. And for a long time, he resisted doing it because he didn't feel like anyone would be interested in anything he'd done in that fashion. And finally, he did a picture, and he gave it to his friend as a Christmas present. And his friend sold it and gave him the money for it, and that was a spark for him to see that people would be interested in some of the work that he was doing — and that it was good enough to be bought.

Erin Kelly: I think he felt like he had some talent as an artist that he had never realized. And so he began to create works of art with this kind of inner confidence that also, I think, needed some validation, which he got from Patsy and some friends to continue with his artwork and then to incorporate more and more of his personal stories, both as a way of dealing with, struggling with and reckoning with the trauma he'd been through, but also to commemorate, remember, celebrate some of the people that he knew in Cuthbert, Ga., who he loved so much. And he wanted to represent them in the paintings. He wanted to paint the juke joints. He wanted to paint the poolrooms as a way of remembering and enjoying some of the beautiful moments that he enjoyed with the community in Cuthbert.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.